Interview with Michael Daves

On June 9, World Cafe Live will host one of the most-anticipated bluegrass acts of 2016, when Michael Daves brings his “Orchids and Violence” album release tour to Philadelphia. Fans will get the special chance to hear Daves perform in a trio format, along with two of the nation’s finest bluegrass musicians: Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers) and Brittany Haas (Crooked Still, Dave Rawlings Machine). Our Matt Thomas caught up with Michael via email to ask some questions about the new album, the bluegrass jam culture, and what Philly bluegrass fans should expect on June 9. Tickets for the show are on sale now at worldcafelive.com.

Daves, Pikelny, and Haas backstage at The Bell House in Brooklyn, NY.

MT: Congrats on your new album, “Orchids & Violence!” Can you talk a bit about how you selected songs for this record? Were you looking specifically for songs that would work with both electric and acoustic arrangements?

MD: Thanks! Yes, I had the album concept 100% in mind when selecting songs. The goal was to record the same track list twice on two discs—one bluegrass and the other electric—and to have each album stand on its own, while making sure the two versions of each song had interesting contrasts. So it was a giant puzzle in terms of song choice and song order, and I kept reworking versions all the way through the recording process to get things to sit right. Of course in hindsight you always think of things you’d have done differently, but overall I’m pretty happy with the execution of the concept.

MT: “Orchids & Violence” pairs 90s-style rock (including a tremendous cover of Mother Love Bone’s “Stargazer”) with bluegrass. Why do you think these genres make such a good pairing?

MD: Well I don’t know that these two genres pair well, except for them both being part of my personal history—bluegrass from my family (my parents play fiddle and banjo and there was a lot of it in the house) and the 90s rock thing because it was what was happening around the time I first started having bands and looking to find my own musical voice. Back in the day those styles seemed to have nothing to do with one another, but in the course of this album project it became clearer how they both shaped who I am as a musician. So it became a personal statement, but also a statement on the adaptability of these old songs, many of which have been around since before there was bluegrass music.

MT: You’re known for running the First Monday Bluegrass Jam at Rockwood Music Hall, one of the better-known bluegrass jams in New York City. How did you get involved in that, and how important do you think the open jam scene is to bluegrass music?

MD: One of the great things about bluegrass music, and something that keeps the tradition strong, is that people of all stripes get together and play it for fun. It’s rare among musical styles to have people from beginner to professional assemble regularly in a public place to jam, but that’s what happens in bluegrass. It can be very inclusive, and facilitates passing the music along from person to person. You don’t have to go to school for it—you can just show up to jams and absorb. It can be especially meaningful in a big city like NYC or Philly, where jamming culture brings people together and provides a family-type feel where people otherwise might feel isolated or lost in the crowd.

MT: What albums or artists are you listening to the most these days?

MD: Recently I went on an early R.E.M. binge, listening to all seven of their 1980s releases in a row. That music is still so fresh, and bears little resemblance to the stuff they did from the 90s on. Having grown up in Georgia, it’s somewhat nostalgic for me as well. I’m also way into Dirty Three, and related projects Grinderman, Nick Cave, and PJ Harvey. Like everybody I’ve been floored with what Kendrick Lamar has been up to. On the bluegrass front, I can never get enough of the Stanley Brothers.

MT: We’re really excited to see you play at World Cafe Live in a trio format with Noam Pikelny and Brittany Haas. Is there anything different about your approach to playing in a trio, as opposed to in a full band?

MD: I’m super excited for this mini-tour with Noam and Brittany. I’ve worked with them each of them quite a bit in duos, and they are both part of the band on the new album. In full-band shows we’ve pretty much stuck to the arrangements from the recording which are not super complicated, but also don’t leave a lot of space to stretch out. Noam and Brittany are both incredible improvisers and great listeners, so the trio format is going to allow us to be lot more free and spontaneous with the album material. They can both turn on a dime, so I think these shows are going to be full of surprises.

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